Politics of Image

The Presidential Campaign: Politics of Image

Mirian Toidze
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"Television is the most emotional and persuasive of all the media."

Joseph Napolitan, US political consultant

"In general, Georgian politicians are not fond of writing. Save rare exceptions, one virtually cannot find any publications written by party leaders, ministers or parliamentarians, let alone lower-ranking figures, in the press. The publication of a book is also rarity, one can name rare exceptions in this area as well."

Davit Zurabishvili, member of Georgia's Republican Party

The above quote from one of the popular figures of the Republican Party was written in 2001; it was an excerpt from his foreword to the book A Decisive Battle for Georgia, written by Mikheil Saakashvili and published in 2001. In that introduction, singling out the future president of Georgia from among the other politicians of that time, Zurabishvili stated: "Saakashvili belongs to that small exception of Georgian politicians, who not only speak but write too." Presumably, the pathos of those words implies the following truth: a politician is obliged to offer his/her opinions, projects, and emotions to voters in writing, because publications often provide the possibility of rational and intellectual perception of a political message.

Publications show deeds, rather than posture. In a publication, an author is free to formulate his/her opinion in full and not to fall victim to incorrect interpretation and misunderstandings. The nature of television is absolutely different. Television is a medium of much greater intensity. Consequently, it serves emotional perception of a message to a greater extent than it does rational perception. Moreover, while television provides instant reach to a broad circle of voters, at the same time, it also establishes rules of the game for politicians.

Keeping in mind the wide variety of tastes and the differing abilities of TV viewers to perceive a political message, what become of utmost importance is whether a politician is telegenic and has good communication skills. Intellect and professionalism are often not the only qualities sufficient for a modern politician; he/she must also have a certain sense of political theatre. In his essay, "Letters on Politics and Society", Bertolt Brecht wrote that a person in politics is either a subject or an object; no other choice exists. In other words, if a voter, as an object, subconsciously obeys the rules of political theatre, the aim of a politician, in this case, is to charm the voter in the same manner in which actors charm theatre-goers. For such a process, because of its scale and power of attraction, television is the best medium.

The politics of visualization, of image, by means of television, has somewhat replaced the politics of party manifestoes. This is a global process and Georgia is not an exception in this respect.

All in all, it can be said that the politics of visualization, of image, by means of television, has somewhat replaced the politics of party manifestoes. This is a global process and Georgia is not an exception in this respect. In this regard, it is interesting how the key seekers of the post of the President of Georgia – Giorgi Margvelashvili of the Georgian Dream coalition, Davit Bakradze of the United National Movement, Nino Burjanadze of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, and Salomé Zourabichvili as an independent candidate, amongst others – will present themselves in the ongoing presidential election campaign.

When President Saakashvili appointed Salomé Zourabichvili as the minister of foreign affairs, giving her access the so-called executive game (the high stakes game, in poker slang), in 2004, hopes were high that this minister coming from Europe would be able to establish best standards of practice in Georgia's communication space. Indeed, the public speeches of this minister back then were focused on concrete issues and contained very few emotional elements. One could sense the serene power of a high-level public servant; her confidence and professionalism; a certain charisma and elegance.

Her recent participation in a TV entertainment talk-show made it obvious just how good Salomé Zourabichvili could have been. She displayed an excellent example of a communication technique known as storytelling. Even the phrases she used, spoken in obsolete Georgian, added color to her narrative. When recalling the past – her childhood as the daughter of emigrants in France, the start of her diplomatic career, her first and second marriages, and the best and worst times in her life – the former minister came across as attractive, warm and humane with a sense of humor.

The point, however, is that we have virtually not seen anything of such a Salomé Zourabichvili over the past few years. It seems that the political turmoil in Georgia dragged her away and she found herself among the opposition of that time. She became engaged in denigrating and demonizing the government then existing (her famous phrase – "dialogue is the language of the devil" – is enough for illustration!). It is amazing, but this person, well-schooled in diplomacy, seemed to forget a key principle of public politics – do not say or write anything you cannot prove. The rhetoric of Salomé Zourabichvili from the time when she was an opposition leader was riddled with accusations built upon conspiracy theories (for example, the missile incident in Tsiletubani in 2007, in which she accused the government of bombing its own territory to provoke tensions in the Tskhinvali region; or the allegation about the "rebuke" of Saakashvili in Paris in 2010 for agreeing on a visa-free travel regime with Iran).

It will be interesting this time around whether Salomé Zourabichvili will manage to build her election campaign on constructive rhetoric and important topics; presenting herself as the bearer of Western communications standards and not as an indigenous Georgian politician capitalizing on the condemnation of the "nine-year-long period of destruction."

the more a person strives for power the more he/she should hide that desire when appearing on TV, according to an expert in political communications and one of founders of the Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes.

The image that Nino Burjanadze has chosen for her political identity plays a greater role. "She styles her hair like Margaret Thatcher and counts the Iron Lady among her political idols," wrote journalist Tony Halpin in The Times about the leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia in November 2008. An impeccable suit and hairstyle, elegant shoes and always wearing make-up – this is the trademark of Nino Burjanadze. Iron Lady Nino! – that's how the two-time acting president is known to her supporters.

The problem, however, is that such an image is associated with alienation, a sort of snobbism, among the broad masses of voters. A politician with a bourgeois image cannot be a genuine popular leader. Burjanadze seems to understand that and during the protest rallies in May 2011, she appeared before protesters in a totally different attire. This was not the same Nino Burjanadze who stood next to Vladimir Putin wearing stiletto heels in a freezing Moscow at the opening ceremony of a monument to the Second World War in December 2010! This time around, she appeared wearing a canvas suit and flats; democratic and available, non-ambitious, as if saying to the protesters: "Look! I am one of you!" The song she chose was matching – "Bella Ciao," a song of the Italian partisans who fought against the Fascists that is largely favored by leftists.

That is not a bad example of political communication. However, such communication is only effective when it is trustworthy. But is Nino Burjanadze trustworthy and reliable? On 9 November 2007, two days after the break-up of the opposition rally in Tbilisi, the then Chair of Parliament Nino Burjanadze declared that "bringing instability to the country was in the interests of a concrete country and concrete forces." Then, a mere year and a half later, after the country had gone through a war, Mrs. Burjanadze paid a visit to Putin in Moscow, the leader of that concrete country, and the reason and motive for her doing so are still unknown....

It may sound paradoxical, but out of the existing presidential candidates, the one best-equipped with modern communication technologies is Giorgi Margvelashvili. Although not a professional politician, it seems that he has definitely accumulated significant theoretical knowledge during his multi-year tenure as the rector of the Institute of Public Administration.

Mr. Margvelashvili skillfully masters the so-called low pressure technique necessary for television. When appearing on screen, he seems calm, does not fidget and never raises his voice. Hysterical intonations, so characteristic of Georgian politicians, are strange to him. According to an expert in political communications and one of founders of the Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes, the more a person strives for power the more he/she should hide that desire when appearing on TV. Giorgi Margvelashvili seems to fully embrace this idea. However, the problem of the Georgian Dream's favorite candidate lies not in the tone of his rhetoric, but in its content – "The Georgian nation must share and support whatever the coalition and I say," is a rather strange statement from a leader fighting under the banner of democracy.

However, the masterpiece of Mr. Margvelashvili's political positioning is his interpretation of the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008: "The Georgian government decided to seize territories from Russia by military force." There is no doubt that if Mr. Margvelashvili becomes the head of state, he will be repeatedly reminded of having used this phrase and its accompanying "are you crazy?" gesture – an index finger rotated to his temple. (The political system existing in ancient Athens allowed anyone who so wished to take the floor at the agora to try themselves out as orators. The Athenians called such people idiotai, or private persons, amateurs who differed from professional orators in that they displayed idealism and naivety. That system was one of the charms of Athenian democracy. But, in our controversial world, such expressions from idiotai may result in the lost of sovereignty for the country).

The well-tested rhetoric of Giorgi Targamadze and other members of the Christian-Democratic Party is a separate topic. There has always been the feeling that if a foreign visitor, i.e. a person who does not understand Georgia, switched on their TV during an election campaign to see footage of any pre-election meeting held by the Christian-Democratic Party, they would definitely think that they had arrived in a country for the insane. Cries, hysterical shouts, passionate exclamations and the like, are all very characteristic of the speeches of members of this party.
The content of the speeches of the Christian-Democrats is not devoid of pathetic hyperbole either: "We are the crusaders of the 21st century and cannot retreat. Georgia is behind us," as a member of the Christian-Democrat party, Giorgi Akhvlediani, shouted out at one of the pre-election rallies last year.

And finally, the weakness in the image of the likely presidential candidate of the United National Movement, Davit Bakradze, can be found in his lack of charisma. The former chair of parliament is not a fiery orator. It is difficult to imagine him making emotional speeches that excite and stir up passions in people. His trump cards are of an absolutely different nature: he is a modest and knowledgeable public servant; a young, but already very experienced, professional politician; a unifier of his political team who is also capable of finding common language with his rivals; a guarantor of stability and consistency. The sociology of Western politics refers to such types of people as common men.

Such politicians (of whom Harry Truman is often named as the archetype), give no grounds for thinking that they will become idols; they are perceived as unwavering and unswerving administrators of the state. Normally likeable figures, politicians of this category generally project less hatred towards their rival politicians. Therefore, the, at first glance, unnoticeable but always organized and serene Davit Bakradze will indeed try to exploit his professionalism as his trump card during the election campaign. He will try to present himself as a candidate who is a unifier and acceptable for everyone. Everything seems to suggest that his agitated rivals will indeed give him plenty of opportunity to do just that.

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